The 1920s and ‘30s were full of cowgirl singers like the Girls of the Golden West (Millie and Dolly Good), Patsy Montana and Texas Ruby, most of whom were just as inauthentic as their better known male counterparts like Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers. However, one western performer was the real deal: Billie Maxwell.
One of the two known photos of Billie Maxwell (left), Springerville, Arizona in the 1920s (right).
Billie Maxwell was born in 1906 and raised near Springerville, Arizona, same place where Ike Clanton, one of the Missourian players in the Gunfight at the OK Corral, was shot dead by a detective not 20 years earlier. Her father, E. Curtis Maxwell, was locally renowned as a fiddler who'd amassed a massive repertoire of songs learnt from his father, William Beatty Maxwell, an Illinoisan who’d moved first to Nevada and then Arizona in the 1800s. Curtis Maxwell formed a string band called the White Mountain Orchestra who toured (on horseback) the ranches in the area, playing dances. Not only did Maxwell know many traditional songs, but he composed his own work too, including “Escudilla Waltz” and “Frolic of the Mice.” In her teenage years, Billie joined her father’s band, where she played guitar alongside her brother, Marion, who played mandolin. Eventually she occasionally struck out on her own, performing solo shows in the backcountry.
In 1929, at the age of 23, she married a local schoolteacher, Alvin Chester Warner, and settled down to raise a family. A few months later, in June, her uncle Frank Maxwell (a lawman over in Silver City) noticed a classified in the local paper advertising an upcoming field recording session for Victor over in El Paso. At an audition, the White Mountain Orchestra were deemed worthy and two weeks later Chester Warner drove his wife, Marion, Curtis and Frank to a recording session where they met Ralph Peer.